The history of Wilderstein begins in 1852 with Thomas Holy Suckley's purchase of the river front site, then a sheep meadow of the adjacent late 18th-century estate, Wildercliff. Suckley's fortune had been secured through the family export trade and real estate investments. He was a descendant of the Beekman and Livingston families whose estate houses were prominent landmarks in this region of the Hudson River Valley from the 17th through the late 19th centuries.
Thomas Suckley and his wife Catherine Murray Bowne wanted a building site endowed with striking natural features in the best traditions of the picturesque aesthetic. The landscape setting for Wilderstein fulfilled this criteria by virtue of its varied terrain and the scenic views it afforded of the river and distant mountains - the vistas framed by tall cedars and evergreens.
Suckley named the property "Wilderstein" (wild man's stone) in reference to a nearby Indian petroglyph, an allusive reminder of a cultural heritage that preceded European settlements in the region.
The original Italianate villa designed by John Warren Ritch was remodeled and enlarged in 1888 by Thomas's son Robert Bowne Suckley and his wife, Elizabeth Philips Montgomery. Poughkeepsie architect Arnout Cannon was hired to transform the two story villa into an elaborate Queen Anne style country house. The structure now soared upward with the addition of a third floor, multi-gabled attic and a dramatic five story circular tower with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. The fanciful, asymmetrical skyline of the house was enhanced by the addition of an imposing porte-cochere and an expansive verandah.
The fashionably appointed interiors were designed by the New York City decorator, Joseph Burr Tiffany. With the ground floor rooms executed in contrasting historic revival and aesthetic movement styles, the interiors at Wilderstein offer a splendid microcosm of the decorative arts during this period of American design.
The self-conscious opulence of the newly remodeled Wilderstein was complimented by the Picturesque Landscape design of Calvert Vaux who laid out the grounds at Wilderstein according to the principles of American Romantic Landscape style. The Vaux firm created an intricate network of drives, walks and trails adorned with specimen trees and ornamental shrubs. The landscape plan entailed well-chosen prospect points marked by rustic gazebos and sheltered garden seats. Eclectically designed out buildings were also erected during this period, ranging from a turreted carriage house to the Shingle style gate lodge and a Colonial Revival style potting shed.
Through 1991 three generations of Suckleys occupied Wilderstein, amassing personal and ancestral effects that attest to the lively social history of the estate, its family and their relationship to the Hudson Valley. The books, letters, photographs, furniture, paintings, art objects and china - some ordinary and some exquisite - are intriguing to the scholar and the casual visitor alike.
The last resident of Wilderstein was Margaret (Daisy) Suckley. A cousin and confidante of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Miss Suckley traveled extensively with FDR during his presidency, gave him his famous black Scottish terrier Fala and helped to establish his library in Hyde Park. THE TRUE STORY OF FALA, written by Miss Suckley, describes Fala’s life as the presidential dog. Miss Suckley was with FDR when he was fatally stricken at Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945. She died at Wilderstein in 1991, in her 100th year. The letters they exchanged during their friendship, discovered in a black battered suitcase at Wilderstein, provide one of the best resources for understanding the private side of Roosevelt’s life during his presidency. They have been edited by Geoffrey C. Ward in the book CLOSEST COMPANION.
Photo #4 by Anne L. Schock, Photo #5 by John M. Hall